A Retrospective on Ricky Ponting, from EnglandMartin Chandler |
However uncharitable some of us may be, there cannot be a single Englishman with any sort of rational perspective on the game of cricket who will not acknowledge that Ricky Ponting is one of the great batsmen of the last twenty years. Many of us prefer Brian Lara, and a goodly number Sachin Tendulkar. A case can be made for Rahul Dravid and Jacques Kallis, and perhaps Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara as well, and I suppose there will always be a few mavericks and/or mathematicians who will find a way to present a decent argument in favour of someone else.
But at the end of the day whatever his standing elsewhere Ponting has, at times, been almost villified in England. That said now, as his International career finally comes to a halt, perhaps we can all see that after all he was just a classic example of the pantomime dame. There to frighten the children and old ladies, and be ridiculed by the grown-ups, but at the same time to be respected for being the consummate professional.
Some would say he has been fortunate to enjoy the success that he has, and a strong case can be made out to support that. Not because he was anything other than a hugely gifted batsman, but because he came perilously close to being in the wrong place at the wrong time in his very first Test. Rewind to December 1995 and the first Test against Sri Lanka at the WACA. A disappointing showing against Pakistan meant that Greg Blewett was dropped, and an injury to Steve Waugh meant there were two batting vacancies. Two debutants were called up, Ponting and Stuart Law. The match was comfortably won by Australia who only needed to bat once. Ponting, who should have been caught off an outside edge before he had scored, might well then have gone on to a debut hundred had he not been the victim of a dreadful lbw decision on 96. Skipper Mark Taylor had been hanging on for the landmark and he declared immediately after Ponting was dismissed. Law was left unbeaten on 54.
By the time the second Test arrived Waugh Snr was back, so someone had to go, and of course it was Law. Poor old Stuey Law never did get a Test average, and he spent the rest of his career taking his frustrations out on bowlers in the County Championship and the Sheffield Shield. Like most English cricket followers I saw plenty of Law in the years that followed and for me he was as good a batsman as Australia had, even though their selectors seemed oblivious to that. So if Ponting had, as he should have, copped a blob on debut, who is to say that it might not have been Law who went on to greatness, and Ponting to the bump and grind of the County circuit?
It wasn’t always plain sailing for Ponting after his successful debut, and he went backwards for a while before, after arriving in England in 1997 as reserve batsman, he took his chance late in the series and recorded his first Test century. Again after that his career was not consistently Bradmanesque, and he lost his form on occasions, but overall the curve was upward, forever upward, and by 2005 he arrived in England as captain of an Australian side that was of such quality that it drew many favourable comparisons with the 1948 Invincibles.
That 2005 series was, of course, one of if not the greatest series of Test matches ever played. England, who had been unable to compete on level terms with Australia for a decade and a half, won a spellbinding series 2-1. The young English lions roared right from the off, and although the baggy green juggernaut took the first Test comfortably enough, the sight of Ponting stood in the middle, blood flowing from a cut under the eye inflicted through his helmet by a Steve Harmison express delivery, announced the fact that this series was not going to go the way of the previous eight.
England squared the series dramatically at Edgbaston. We looked like we might win by a street at one point but the great champions simply would not lie down and die, and as Australia’s last pair, the mercurial Brett Lee and honest journeyman Mike Kasprowicz, added 59 for the tenth wicket we all thought it would be number nine after all. But then, three short, Kasprowicz gloved Harmison to Geraint Jones and the nation celebrated.
Moving to Old Trafford the pendulum had well and truly swung back in favour of England and Australia began the last day needing a distant 443 for victory or, more realistically, to bat out time for the draw. The crowds trying to get into the ground seemed never-ending and many were still outside when the “Ground Full” signs went up. Those who did get in were treated to a memorable day’s cricket but, sadly, with not quite the outcome we all wanted. It was the day when those Englishmen who had not already done so realised that Ponting really was a batsman of the highest class. He batted almost all day for 156, the next highest score being Michael Clarke’s 39. Not only did Ponting look like he was totally in command of the situation, to add insult to injury there was a time, thankfully for cardiac units throughout the country a brief one, when it almost looked like Australia would do the impossible. They didn’t, but they did manage the highly improbable, Lee and Glen McGrath batting out the last 17 minutes after Ponting was ninth out.
At Trent Bridge we moved into the 2-1 lead that finally took the series. Those of us who remembered Kim Hughes’ travails in 1981 did not stop worrying until the winning run came with three wickets left as England stumbled towards their victory target of 129. Only then could we concentrate on deriding Ponting for his petulant display when, on 48 in Australia’s second innings, he was brilliantly run out by substitute fielder Gary Pratt.
Next time round in 2006/07 attitudes hardened towards Ponting. Not only did his aging team finally achieve what those of Alan Border, Taylor and Waugh Snr couldn’t by winning a series 5-0, but Ponting averaged more than 80, and seemed impregnable – the bastard was obviously enjoying himself too, although if we were honest (as all too few were) it was difficult to blame him for gloating just a little.
So in 2009 there was a lot at stake as a rather different looking Australia, undoubtedly in transition, came to England to defend the Ashes. The first Test was the, to date, only home Ashes Test not played in England as Cardiff hosted the game. Australia compiled a huge first innings score of 674-6 declared (Ponting 150) before Jimmy Anderson and Monty Panesar defied all expectations by hanging on for more than half an hour at the end. Ponting, on going out to bat, received what is without a doubt the most hostile and unpleasant reception I have ever seen afforded to a visiting batsman in England. I have to say I felt decidedly uneasy about it. A bit of gamesmanship and banter is one thing – that greeting was another thing entirely.
The 2009 series couldn’t possibly live up to that of 2005, although it came pretty close, and once again England ran out 2-1 winners. Ponting was hugely gracious in defeat, and I have to confess I was deeply impressed by him, and by then thoroughly ashamed of the way he had been treated in Cardiff. He followed Shane Warne, Brett Lee, Adam Gilchrist and Justin Langer as Australian cricketers for whom I have enormous respect. I do sometimes think I am going soft in my old age, but then I remember Langer’s erstwhile opening partner, and motormouth McGrath, and I realise that I still have a way to go before I send for the men in white coats.
And so to what proved to be Ponting’s last Ashes series, the glorious 3-1 victory that underlined English superiority over the old enemy two winters ago. Ponting averaged just 16, and missed one match through injury, but no longer did I delight in the taking of his wicket as I did in days gone by. Indeed by the time the end of the series arrived I would gladly have seen the old warhorse score a few runs, and as long as it didn’t prejudice the result rather more than a few, to enable him to go out on a high. I was surprised he didn’t retire there and then if I’m honest, but he clearly fancied another tilt in 2013 and, had he done so, at 38 he would still have been younger than Waugh Snr was when he finally bowed out.
What I didn’t expect Ponting to do was to then average well over 100 in the four Test home series against India in January of this year, but he did, and 2013 and a last hurrah seemed assured. But it was not to be, the great man deciding that a poor start to the current South African series meant that his time at the top had come to an end.
In his time Ponting was also an admirable captain. I won’t describe him as a great skipper, because he clearly wasn’t. His decision making was rarely imaginative, and seldom spontaneous, but he was diligent and determined. For me Punter’s captaincy had something of the “series of uphill cavalry charges” about it. He was absloutely fine when the cavalry were a group of thoroughbreds, but he struggled when those thoroughbreds encountered heavy going, and had real problems leading the selling-platers that he had to contend with on his last lap.
So what will I remember Ricky Ponting for? Above all he is the only man I can think of who I initially loved to hate, and then hated to love. He was, in his prime, and indeed just a few months ago, a modern great as a batsman, well able to stand shoulder to shoulder on the same pedestal as the names in my opening paragraph. He will be missed, but only on the field, as I suspect and hope that Rupert Murdoch’s organisation has already tabled a generous offer for his services next summer.